When Layla Alhussein fled Iraq in 2018 and came to Winnipeg with her sister Amal, she believed the rest of her family was dead, except for one sister who stayed behind in a refugee camp.
But in 2020, she learned her little brother Ayad, then 10 years old, was alive, and had been rescued after five years in ISIS captivity.
“It was a very, very happy moment,” Alhussein said, “I can’t believe he’s alive.”
Now, after two years of trying to bring her brother to Canada from a refugee camp in Iraq, she’s desperate for the government to speed up the process.
She wants the government to be more forthcoming about the status of applications and tell families what they need to do to move their applications forward.
She also wants a timeline so she can provide answers to families who are calling her every day for an update.
“Every day I get up and I try to go about my life, [but the] number one thing for me right now is Ayad,” Alhussein said.
Ayad is currently living in a Yazidi refugee camp in Iraq. He’s told Alhussein that during his years in ISIS captivity, he was chained to a tree by his neck and legs and not allowed to go to the bathroom.
Yazidis, a religious minority based mainly in northern Iraq, follow an ancient religion that combines elements from Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam.
They were persecuted by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, who considered them heretics. In 2016, a United Nations report declared that the slaughter, sexual slavery, indoctrination and other crimes committed against the 400,000 Yazidi amounted to genocide.
The last time Alhussein saw Ayad was before their entire family was captured by ISIS in August of 2014. He hasn’t known safety since he was four years old.
Alhussein was among the refugees selected as part of the federal government’s 2017 commitment to settle 1,200 Yazidi refugees and ISIS survivors.
Though she feared he was dead, when she arrived to Canada, Alhussein held out hope Ayad would be found, and she declared him a dependent in her application.
That meant she should have been able to sponsor her brother through the federal government’s one-year window program, which allows a family member to come to Canada as a dependent of a permanent resident who arrived here as a refugee within the past year.
The application for Ayad was filed in January 2020.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada says in March 2021, the department requested paperwork from Alhussein by email that needed to be completed within 90 days, but said that form hasn’t yet been submitted.
Alhussein says she was never contacted and has not heard from officials since she applied over two years ago.
The federal immigration department says it’s committed to reuniting families, but could not offer a timeline for processing this type of application.
The president of the Canadian Yazidi Association, Jamileh Naso, is working closely with the Alhussein family in conjunction with Operation Ezra, a Winnipeg multifaith grassroots group that has worked to privately sponsor Yazidi refugee families.
Naso said the family’s willingness to speak to media is evidence of how desperate they are for reunification, because there are risks making in their stories public.
If someone finds out Ayad is trying to reconnect with his family in Canada, he risks being recaptured.
“It could be really easy for an ISIS member to pay someone off in the camp, get in there, and take the boy overnight. No one will know what happened to him,” Naso said.
Alhussein is eager for her brother to come to Canada. She wants to pick him up at the airport and take him to the store so he can pick out a bike.
“I want him here so he can be free,” Alhussein said, “He’s not free.”
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